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Posted at: Nov 12, 2017, 12:53 AM; last updated: Nov 12, 2017, 2:04 AM (IST)

Trust the stick she carries

Gurjit Kaur, the ace drag-flicker in the Indian women’s hockey squad, promises to earn her team more honour after her stupendous success — 8 goals — in the recent Asia Cup

As a young girl, Gurjit Kaur would travel 13 km to get to school. There was a government school in her village, Miadi Kalan in Amritsar district, but her parents decided to educate their two daughters in a private school in Ajnala.

Every morning, Gurjit’s father Satnam Singh fit his daughters on his bicycle and took them to school. “He would wait for us till the school got over,” Gurjit’s elder sister Pradeep Kaur says.

But that was never going to be a practicable situation, so Satnam and Harjinder Kaur, after suggestions from relatives, decided to send their daughters to hostel, over 70 km away in Kairon in Tarn Taran district. “Despite his small income from farming, our father decided to send us to Kairon for a better education,” added Pradeep.

That’s where the girls discovered sports. Kairon being one of Punjab’s oldest and most famous girls’ hockey nurseries, the sisters took up the sport. What started as a pastime turned into an opportunity. “As we excelled in hockey, we got into the government wing. The free education and diet came as a big help for our parents,” added Pradeep.

A passion

The sport soon became a passion. While Pradeep went on to become a national-level player, Gurjit has gone a step further. Over a decade after her hockey journey began, Gurjit landed in Japan for the Asia Cup as an unknown name. But the nine days that followed have changed her life, bringing the 22-year-old into the spotlight.

After landing in India on Monday night, Gurjit reached Jalandhar a day later, receiving a rousing welcome at Khalsa College, her alma mater. On Wednesday, Gurjit returned to her village — again getting a big welcome — after over a month, meeting her parents for the first time since the Asia Cup triumph. “They were so happy. They told me how proud they were of me,” said Gurjit.

Her parents have been a source of motivation for Gurjit, and she is driven to succeed not only for herself but also her family.

“She came to us in 2006. She had a good physique — a strong girl,” said Sharanjeet Singh, Gurjit’s coach at Kairon. “She was disciplined and very hardworking. She stayed with us till 2011, before graduating to college and moving to Jalandhar.”

Drag-flicking

It was in Jalandhar that Gurjit first got serious about drag-flicking. Soon, Gurjit got a chance to fulfil her dream of playing for India when she was called for the national camp in 2014. However, success eluded her. Gurjit, who is an employee of the North Central Railways, could not secure a place in the team, playing a few matches here and there.

It was only this year, after Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne joined as the head coach that Gurjit became a permanent. The defender played in the Test series in Canada in March, the Hockey World League Round 2 in April and the HWL Semifnals in July, “gaining in confidence” with each tournament.

But she struggled to find goals from penalty corners. That’s where Marijne, who was with the women’s team till September before becoming the men’s coach, helped her. During the team’s tour to the Netherlands in September — to prepare for the Asia Cup — Marijne made Gurjit change her stick. “The stick I used earlier felt light and I didn’t get enough power. So, when we went to Holland, Marijne asked me to try drag-flicking with a different stick. It was much better and I felt more powerful. The change has helped me,” Gurjit said.

Aware of the fact that penalty corner conversion was an aspect the Indian women’s team needed to work on, Marijne also set up nine sessions with Dutch coach Toon Siepman, whom he knew from his club hockey days.

The ‘small changes’

Siepman, a former player, has a long history in coaching. He had worked as the penalty corner coach with the Belgian national team leading up to the Rio Olympics. “With Siepman, I corrected my basics like keeping my head up, how to turn my body and the stepping during the drag-flicking process,” Gurjit said. “These were minor changes, but I had never realized earlier that I was doing it incorrectly. He told me to ‘just make these small changes and you can become the best drag-flicker in the world’. I keep that in mind every time I work on drag-flicking.”

The changes worked like magic. Before the Asia Cup, Gurjit had a few goals to her name. When the tournament began, just three days after her 22nd birthday, no one could have predicted what was to follow. Gurjit scored eight goals, including two against Japan in the semifinals, to end as the team’s top scorer.

Back home, as the news of India’s Asia Cup triumph hit the media, Pradeep — who is a hockey coach with the Punjab Sports Department at Sansarpur — distributed sweets to her colleagues.

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